Stressful hearings for lay judges

It surfaced on April 17 that a woman in her 60s who served as a lay judge in a burglary and murder case in Fukushima Prefecture suffered a stress disorder after being exposed to evidence that showed a cruel crime scene.

Her sufferings bring home the inadequacy of the judiciary’s measures to alleviate possible psychological burdens on lay judges and to provide care to them in case they experience distress. Necessary changes must be made immediately to the way a criminal case is handled in the presence of lay judges.

The woman took part in the six-day proceedings at the Koriyama branch of the Fukushima District Court, dealing with a case in which a married couple in Aizu Misato, Fukushima Prefecture, was stabbed to death in July 2012.

On March 4, the woman and other lay judges saw a color photograph of the murder scene, consisting of a pool of blood, on a monitor screen. A vivid audio recording of the wife requesting dispatch of an ambulance was also played. The woman lay judge vomited while eating meat in the lunch provided by the court to the lay judges during a recess.

The court gave a 46-year-old man a death sentence as demanded by the prosecution on March 14. His defense counsel appealed the sentence the same day.

The woman started to become sick at the sight and the smell of meals and came to suffer insomnia because she experienced a flashback of the photo almost every day. In late March, she was diagnosed as suffering from stress disorder. Other lay judges said that the trial was hard on them physically and psychologically or that they experienced flashbacks of the photo.

In a criminal trial at the Sapporo District Court in July 2012, a woman lay judge lost consciousness.

Generally the prosecution tends to present vivid evidence in an effort to convince judges that the crime was cruel. It should consider changing color photographs into black and white or employing some sort of image processing if the photographs’ value as evidence is not compromised. It can also produce transcripts out of an audio recording of remarks by people involved in a crime.

The Fukushima case has demonstrated that the psychological support and care for lay judges offered by the Supreme Court is weak. The woman asked the top court’s section in charge of mental support for lay judges for help. But it was to no avail because she could not afford to go to Tokyo from Fukushima Prefecture to receive up to five rounds of free-of-charge counseling.

The woman’s experience shows that an interim report by a panel of the Justice Ministry — which says that enough efforts have been made to strengthen mental care for lay judges — is off the mark. At the very least, establishing a system in which prosecutors consult with psychological counselors over how to present evidence should be considered. A gag order on lay judges should be loosened to some extent so that they can alleviate their psychological burdens by talking about their pains.

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    Unfit Lay judges should be weeded out at the outset.